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Cadaver Interview: Director & Writer Jonah D. Ansell

// Interviews

Cadaver is an award-winning animated short featuring the voices of Christopher Lloyd, Kathy Bates and Tavi Gevinson. Described as “a cinematic poem … inspired by the wit of Shel Silverstein and the wisdom of William Shakespeare, it is a twenty-first century love sonnet”, Cadaver will also be available as a graphic novel in February 2012.


Despite missing out on the 2013 Academy Award shortlist, Cadaver has a lot of life left in it yet (no pun intended). Not content with an animated short and graphic novel, there is talk of a feature film and an animated musical. Jonah D. Ansell tells us more…

Thank you for taking the time to talk to Skwigly. Can you tell us about your background (writer and director), and what came before Cadaver?

I was born in Chicago and played baseball all the way through college.  But after realising my fastball failed to frequent the strike zone, I decided to pursue something different.  I began to write.  I founded a satire magazine at Amherst College at age 19, and after graduating, raised money and launched a humor magazine at age 21.  After my partners and I sold the company to National Lampoon at age 25, I moved to Los Angeles to earn my MFA at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.  In school, I wrote and produced a short film (FIRST BASS) based on a true story from my childhood.  Growing up, I always loved coming of age stories, such as Stand By Me (1986), Big (1988) and Back to the Future (1985).

Cadaver is quite a dark love-story – where did you get your inspiration from, and did you come up with the idea?

CADAVER began as a poem I wrote for my kid sister (a medical student) on the day before she cut open her first anatomy-lab cadaver at Chicago’s Northwestern University.  As soon as I uncovered the emotional core of CADAVER, I set out to identify the most effective medium to convey it.  I knew the story would spark to life as an animated film, but from the very beginning, was intrigued by the idea of turning it into a graphic novel.  I wanted to invite readers to linger on the page.  To contemplate the words and images that hurtle past (almost too quickly) as the cinematic version unfolds.  As a kid growing up on the West Side of Chicago, I routinely retreated to my Chicago Cubs-pennant plastered bedroom to contemplate the elegant images of Chris Van Allsburg and the scratchy scribbles of Quentin Blake.  In this light, I truly see CADAVER as “a nursery rhyme for adults”.   It navigates the tragedy of the human experience in a light-hearted, sophomoric way.  And yet, it deals with the most adulterous of matters.

Cadaver Scalpel Cut

I saw that the film was entirely hand drawn with Sharpie markers – what was your reason behind this decision, verses creating the artwork digitally? 

Whenever one tells a love story, be it a romantic comedy (When Harry Met Sally, 1989) or a dark and tragic exploration of how love unravels (Blue Valentine, 2010), it’s critical to add the teeth of honesty.  Love stories can too often err on the side of sappy or cheesy.  I sought to find a beautiful but gritty way to visually communicate the story.  My producer Amanda Dunham Ely and I studied the works of over 400 illustrators, but when we saw the Sharpie-drawn artwork of Seattle-based Carina Simmons, we knew we had found our style.

Your promotional strategy of making the film available for a few weeks, and then only by scanning a QR code from the graphic novel is a very interesting one that I haven’t come across before. Was this a necessity for funding the film, or a commercial decision to cross promote the novel?

The beauty is in the bundle: finding a way to give fans each element of this special love story (in film, book and song formats).  We see the film, book and songs as co, augmenting elements — working together to help us articulate the emotional truth of our story.  The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore actually achieved this before we did — and I think, increasingly, as technologies continue to evolve, we will see more and more filmmakers telling their stories across multiple platforms.

Christopher Lloyd, Kathy Bates and Tavi Gevinson were excellent choices for the voice cast – I noticed a strong resemblance between your characters and their real-life appearance. Did you design your characters around the actors, or did you cast after the character designs had been complete?

This is a great question.  We actually went through dozens and dozens of drafts of character concept art (and pints and pints of Sharpie ink)!  And yet, for whatever reason, we still couldn’t nail it.  We then decided to share video performances of the voice actors with our character artist (Carina Simmons).  This was one of the best decisions we made.  Carina infused the energy and spirit of those performances into the art.  It really paid off because it helped the characters embody the real life mannerisms of the incredibly talented actors.

Cadaver Road Trip

What was it like to work with such a cast?

It was categorically humbling to work with the cinematic heroes of my youth.  Christopher Lloyd is a prolifically talented actor and he breathed such life into the role.  Kathy Bates is wonderful (in her small cameo role) and is a true champion of the film.  Tavi is a great friend from back home (in Chicago) and I’m thrilled with the performance she delivers.  As a writer, it’s always exciting when actors respond to your work.  But, it’s most thrilling to witness how actors elevate the work.  Working with a supremely talented cast reminds you of just how collaborative the process of filmmaking truly is.

Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates have expressed interest to return for a feature version of the film, plus I read that it may be translated into an animated musical in the vein of Nightmare Before Christmas. Could you spill any secrets/information on these future plans?

We’re thrilled about turning Cadaver into a feature film.  We are actively shopping the story (via William Morris Endeavor) to Hollywood studios and independent producers.  However, even though Cadaver has been widely lauded, the biggest studios have shied away from it because the subject matter is “too dark.”  It’s not exactly a ‘kids’ movie — and (as I’m learning quite quickly) it’s hard to make an animated movie that’s not for kids within the studio system.  As much as I love Wreck-It-Ralph (2012), Cadaver may be closer (from an audience perspective) to Waltz with Bashir (2008).  As such, we think it may take an independent producer with a mature sensibility who believes in the project to help get this film made.  Know anyone?!


You can pre-order CADAVER the graphic novel at Amazon (by clicking this link) – it features three bonus items:

  • a rendition of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, performed by Tavi Gevinson
  • an acoustic rendition of The Pet Shop Boys’ “Heart”
  • a digital viewing copy of the film, Cadaver

You can also join the Facebook page, to stay up to date with future CADAVER developments

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